My Century And My Many Lives, by Frank Munk
Frank Munk, my grandfather, wrote this autobiography to record his memories
from 1901 onwards. This history and its postscript are available on our family website in his
memory as they tell a complete story of the 20th century. These memoirs may be referenced as
long as proper attribution is made; our family retains ownership and copyright. We have one
request: if you reference this material in any way, please send us email at
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© Copyright 1993, 1994, The Munk/Ragen Families
JEWS AND OTHER JEWS
One of my earliest
memories is my father saying: "It is unfortunate to be born a Jew -- it means you
have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to make good." It never occurred
to me either to doubt it or to be particularly upset about it, I accepted it as
a simple fact of life.
However, to many
Jews we were not Jewish enough. We never observed religious dietary laws, our
food was identical to that of our neighbors. We never wore different clothing.
We did not know or speak Yiddish. As a matter of fact I never knew such people
existed until I was fifteen or sixteen, when Russian armies invaded Galicia, the
easternmost province of Austria, and tens of thousands of orthodox Jews were
forcefully evacuated to the West. My mother volunteered to organize their
resettlement in the Kutná Hora district and spent innumerable hours in a
horse-drawn carriage to find room for them in the villages. They seemed like a
very strange crowd to the local Jews.
ourselves as modern, emancipated and "cultured" Jews in contrast to those Jews
in black caftans, with hair locks who spoke guttural Yiddish. I am sure we were
wrong in our feelings, but that was the prevailing attitude. They all were
repatriated at the end of WWI to their "statls" in what had by then become the
Jews had of course
lived in Bohemia for almost a thousand years. Suffice it to say that by the time
I was growing up the Jewish community was roughly divided along linguistic
lines: Czech Jews and German Jews. Those living in Czech-speaking districts
spoke Czech, those in German speaking districts (mostly the so-called Sudetens
along the borders of Germany) spoke German. But that was not the only
difference: German Jews felt anti-Semitism more acutely and began reverting to
Zionism early in the thirties. Czech Jews regarded themselves as "Czechs of the
Jewish faith" and were increasingly regarded as such by others.
Prague was an
exception to the general rule. Many Prague Jews spoke German as their
vernacular, even though they had to speak Czech in everyday life. The Prague
Jewish community produced many outstanding personalities, for a time Einstein
taught at the German university, others were well-known writers like Max Brod or
Franz Kafka. Just as the Germans were a minority among the Czechs, the German
speaking Jews were a minority among the Germans. Anti-semitism was ripe. This
sense of isolation was one thing that made Kafka a by-word. I never liked him
but I must admit that he was an early prophet of the Age of the Absurd.
Nowadays, when you say Prague you think of Kafka, although he was absolutely
unrepresentative of Bohemia when he and I were living there. He knew Czech very
well, but he wrote in German.
In fact, the whole
world has become increasingly Kafkaesque ever since. Our attitude towards
Judaism was only a reflection of our Weltanschauung. We believed
uncritically in progress, rationality, the unity of mankind, free will and
self-determination and we were opposed to irrationality, whether secular or
religious. Later on I plan to describe how these beliefs affected my life and
work, but let me say right now that I never doubted that humanity was moving
towards peace, understanding, and clarity. In other words, light will triumph
over darkness. Little did I anticipate that my lifetime would encompass much of
the opposite trend. Anyway, my generation was probably the last one to
inherently believe in enlightenment.
Perhaps I ought to
say a little more about the Jewish side of our family. We went to the local
synagogue twice or three times a year, mostly for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
We did not celebrate the other holidays. I learned to read Hebrew for my Bar
Mitzvah, which I remember best for the presents I received, including a large
and still excellent world atlas.
In spite of our
laxity in matters of religion, my father served for years as treasurer of the
local Jewish community. In Austria, Roman Catholicism was the state religion and
was financed by the state. Other religions were by then free to operate, but had
to support themselves by taxing their members. My father had the power to assess
and collect the taxes the community decided upon. I do not know how popular he
was in this duty, but I newer heard a word of criticism. Anyway, in addition to
being a merchant, he was a tax collector.
As soon as the
Czechoslovak republic was created, there was a definite flight from organized
religion throughout the country. It was particularly pronounced among the
Catholics, since the church was unpopular because of its support for the
Habsburg Monarchy. As a result, both my girlfriend Nadia and I left our
respective denominations early in the twenties, she having been born a Catholic.
books listed below provide additional background on this period of history to
help illustrate this portion of my grandfather's memoirs.